Rev Rewind: Bill & Rob Koll
Mark Palmer, Staff Writer
Rev Rewind is a new feature that provides profiles of legendary wrestlers and other stories of historical interest for the "oldest and greatest sport."
Ask a wrestler why he or she took up the sport, and many times the response is, "My dad was a wrestler."
One can imagine that there might be considerable pressure on a youngster whose dad was a three-time NCAA champ (winning NCAA tournament Outstanding Wrestler honors twice) and long-time coach at the University of Northern Iowa and at Penn State.
Yet Rob Koll -- an NCAA champion himself who has been head coach at Cornell University for more than a decade -- never experienced any arm-twisting from his father, legendary wrestler/coach Bill Koll.
Product of a wrestling hotbed
Rob Koll grew up in a wrestling environment. He was born and raised in State College, Pennsylvania, which is not only home to major wrestling powerhouse Penn State University, but also situated in the heart of one of the amateur wrestling hotbeds of the U.S.
Yet it doesn't necessarily matter where the Kolls lived; it would have been, by nature, a wrestling-intense atmosphere.
[Photo of Rob Koll as coach]
"I was the baby of the family, with brothers who were wrestlers," says Rob Koll. "It was natural I'd take up wrestling as a form of self-defense."
"They beat the tar out of me on a regular basis. Not that I didn't deserve it sometimes. But it served as the best training ground."
"My day care was the Penn State wrestling room," continues Rob, whose father Bill was head coach of the Nittany Lions from 1965 until his retirement in 1979. "By being around it, I picked up things by osmosis. I got a ‘feel' for it just from being in the room."
"My heroes growing up were guys like Rick Lorenzo (1968 EIWA champ and NCAA All-American at 191 pounds; Penn State head coach 1979-1992) and Andy Matter (1971-72 EIWA and NCAA champ at 167 pounds)."
Rob's first taste of organized wrestling -- beyond the living room and the PSU wrestling room -- came in the fifth grade, when he entered a Takedown Tournament … and won it. His wrestling career in the Keystone State culminated with winning a Pennsylvania state title while competing at State College Area High School.
From Little Lion to Tar Heel
"Other than Penn State, North Carolina was the only school actively recruiting me out of high school," says Rob. "By this point, Dad had retired … I thought it would be neat to get out of town."
Rob Koll headed south to Chapel Hill, where he made a name for himself on the mats for the University of North Carolina. He became the winningest wrestler in the history of the Tar Heels -- and Atlantic Coast Conference – compiling a 150-20-1 record. Rob claimed three ACC individual titles, helping the Tar Heels win the conference team title those same three years. In addition, Rob was twice selected to represent UNC at the National Wrestling Coaches Association's All-Star event, winning both times … and traveled with the NWCA All-Star team to Italy.
Rob also earned the distinction of being the first UNC wrestler to become a four-time All-American. He placed eighth in the 150-pound weight class at the 1985 NCAAs, and came in third at the 1986 and '87 NCAAs at 158 pounds. The younger Koll capped off his college career by winning the 158-pound title at the 1988 NCAAs at Iowa State; the top-seeded Tar Heel pinned sixth-seeded Joe Pantaleo of the University of Michigan at 1:14 in the finals.
[Photo of Rob Koll as UNC wrestler]
When asked to recall his feelings at the time of being crowned NCAA champ as a senior, Rob Koll said, "After the match, it was more a relief to finally win … My dad was a presenter in my weight class, and I think I had a feeling of 'I better win this and not embarrass the family.'"
Rob does have one negative memory from winning the NCAA title: what he terms a "lack of respect" on the part of the community in Chapel Hill. "There wasn't much coverage nor acknowledgement of me winning a national title … It was very much a basketball school."
"During the regular season, we'd call up folks and beg them to come to our dual meets. It was strange to wrestle in front of fewer people in college than I did all through high school."
"By contrast, the situation here at Cornell is much different. We're blessed with support from the administration, from the fans, and the media."
Coming to Cornell
Upon graduation from North Carolina with a degree in communication, Rob Koll worked as an assistant wrestling coach at his college alma mater, and competed internationally, winning the title at the 1989 Pan Am Games, placing fifth at the 1991 World Championships, and serving as an alternate on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. But he was destined for even bigger things. An April 2007 article at Sports Illustrated's "SI On Campus" Web site opens with how Rob Koll found himself on the coaching staff at Cornell:
"One day 18 years ago, Rob Koll came home from working at a wrestling clinic in Chapel Hill, NC, and his wife told him she had accepted a job on his behalf as an assistant wrestling coach at Cornell University.
"'The week prior to that we were scraping under our mud mats in our car looking for quarters and nickels, anything to buy a Subway sub. And that's a true story,' he remembers. 'I spoke with the head coach (at that time, Jack Spates, now Oklahoma Sooner head coach) and I said, 'Hey, I don't mean to insult you, but is Cornell even any good?' And he said, 'No, but we are going to be good.'"
Big Red success
Five years after Rachel Koll had said yes to a job for her husband at Cornell, Rob became head coach of the Big Red … and in thirteen seasons, has built a wrestling powerhouse that is respected far beyond its home in upstate New York. Since Koll took the helm, Cornell can claim three individual NCAA champs … twenty-two Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association individual titles, and one EIWA team title … and eight Ivy League titles.
During the nearly two decades that Rob Koll has been at the Ithaca, New York school, the Big Red have placed in the top twenty in the team standings at the NCAAs eight times, finishing as high as fourth at the 2005 NCAAs. That year, Koll was named NWCA Division I Coach of the Year, and also earned WIN-Magazine's Dan Gable Coach of the Year honors.
The past few years, Cornell has been well-represented at the NCAAs. In 2007, Rob Koll brought eight men to the Palace at Auburn Hills –- the same number of wrestlers that competed at the 2003, 2004 and 2006 NCAAs. At the most recent NCAAs, four Cornell wrestlers earned All-American honors: Troy Nickerson finished in third place at 125 pounds, Jerry Rinaldi came in sixth at 197, and Jordan Leen (149) and Josh Arnone (184) took eighth in their respective weight classes.
[Rob Koll (Photo/Danielle Hobeika)]
That may not be enough for Rob Koll. In the Sports Illustrated article, he's quoted as saying, "People are telling us how great we did for the season (and) I feel like General Custer after the last stand. That's how I feel about the national tournament; we had a great year, but I just got scalped. What good does that do me?"
However, under Rob Koll's leadership, Cornell has undergone an amazing transformation. "When I came here, there was just one state champ on the roster," says Coach Koll in an interview for this profile. "We had just one wrestling mat."
"The program has grown tremendously. We have a beautiful new facility (the Friedman Wrestling Center, the only stand-alone college wrestling facility in the country)… We have incredible alumni and fan support."
Dad would be proud of all that his youngest son has accomplished.
Meet Bill Koll
Bill Koll was arguably THE superstar of college wrestling in the 1940s. A three-time NCAA champ for Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa), Koll never lost a match in college. In his entire college career, Bill was taken down only once -- during the 1946 NCAA finals by Oklahoma State's Edgar Welch.
[Portrait of Bill Koll]
Yet Bill Koll wasn't always the rough, tough, seemingly invincible mat star. As a high school sophomore in Fort Dodge, Iowa, he weighed only 78 pounds… and lost every one of his dual-meet matches. The following year, he experienced a tremendous growth spurt -- not only gaining almost 50 pounds, but also a ton of experience in the wrestling room and in actual matches -- and placed third at the state tournament at 125. By his senior year, Bill gained a bit more weight -- and even more strength and experience -- and won the Iowa high school state title at 135 pounds.
In a profile for the 1981 book "From Gotch to Gable: A History of Wrestling in Iowa", Bill Koll told author Mike Chapman, "Frankly, I never seriously considered college until my senior year in high school… The only school that showed any interest in me was Iowa State Teachers College and (head coach) Dave McCuskey."
[Bill Koll as college wrestler]
During the 1942-43 season, first-year student Bill Koll soaked up experience in the ISTC wrestling room and in open tournaments. (At the time, NCAA rules prohibited freshmen from competing in regular dual meets). But in February 1943, Bill was inducted into the Army, and "never saw a wrestling mat for 34 months," he's quoted as saying in "From Gotch to Gable". "As a combat engineer, I spent 24 months in Europe, where our unit of amphibious engineers landed at Omaha Beach at 6:15 a.m. on June 6."
Bill's son Rob picks up the story: "He was one of the first at the Normandy beach invasion on D-Day … He was among those who had to clear the beach of the dead and wounded before the generals arrived. He only started to talk about all this about the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion."
"I think from this experience, he was so able to focus on anything, and develop what he called a 'controlled anger' which he used on his opponents," says the younger Koll. "He taught me to focus that way with escaping from the down position. Emotional control -- quick, explosive, 'fight or flight.' A lot of that came from his Army training. It made him more brutal on the mat."
Return to wrestling
Bill Koll was discharged from the Army in December 1945, and within three days was back at ISTC. The 1945-46 season had limited dual-meet competition, but Bill qualified for the NCAAs, held that year at Gallagher Hall at Oklahoma State. "Not being in top shape, I did not have one of my top tournaments," the elder Koll is quoted as saying in "From Gotch to Gable". "I was taken down in the finals by an Oklahoma Aggie (Edgar Welch of Oklahoma State) for the only time anyone gained a takedown on me, and even though the match was not a difficult one to win, I certainly was not as precise as when I was in good shape." Koll beat Welch 7-2 to win the 145-pound title at the 1946 NCAAs, and the trophy for the most falls.
The following season, Bill Koll continued his winning streak, culminating in a 7-2 victory over Roger Snook of Cornell College of Iowa in the 1947 NCAA finals to win his second title at 145 -- one of three champs from ISTC -- and claim Outstanding Wrestler honors. Bill's senior year, the NCAAs were a qualifying event for the 1948 Olympics, using Olympic rules. Despite being new to this style of wrestling, Koll pinned his way through the tournament, winning the 147.5 lb title, and claiming his second straight Outstanding Wrestler award –- the first wrestler to win that honor more than once.
By winning the 1948 NCAA title, Bill Koll earned a place on the U.S. Olympic team -- and a trip to London, where he placed fifth in his weight class.
While at ISTC, Bill Koll was surrounded by greatness on the wrestling team. His roommate was Bob Siddens -- long-time wrestling official and legendary Waterloo West (Iowa) High School coach who guided many future NCAA champs, perhaps most notably Dan Gable. Among his ISTC teammates who also became NCAA champs: Cecil Mott, Gerald Leeman (who won the silver medal at the 1948 Olympics), Russell Bush, and Bill Nelson. "Dad thought his teammates could've stood up to any top modern program," according to Rob Koll.
Bill Koll was known for his tough wrestling style. But he was revered -- and feared -- for his body-slamming technique that brought opponents crashing to the mat for the pin.
Bob Siddens described the situation in Mike Chapman's 2006 book "Legends of the Mat": "Slamming was allowed in (Bill Koll's) era … I remember clear as a bell this one time Bill slammed a foe to the mat so hard, the fellow was nearly unconscious. Bill shook him when he was on top, so it looked like the guy was trying to escape, and the referee called a pin…"
"They changed the slam rule after that," says Siddens.
"I would slam ‘em down if I could," Bill Koll was quoted in a 1985 Des Moines Register story, "The year I graduated, they took the slam out of wrestling … It was one of my favorite moves, a perfectly legal tactic. It wasn't something that was dubious. It was in our repertoire."
"Wing locks, double-bar arms, the body slam … those are some of the things we used that are illegal now. They were kind of painful, and helped make a person submit quicker."
The transition to coaching
After graduating from Iowa State Teachers College, Bill Koll launched a long and successful career as a college wrestling coach. After brief stints at the University of Chicago and Cornell of Iowa, he came back to his college alma mater, where he was head coach for eleven seasons (1953-64), compiling a 71-42-6 record for a .622 winning percentage. While at ISTC, he coached three NCAA champs … and managed to earn his doctorate in education from Oregon State.
"He was the key to the great Iowa Teachers teams of the 1940s and 50s," according to Bill Smith, a two-time NCAA champ for ISTC in 1949 and 1950, and 1952 Olympic gold medalist. "He administered beatings to all of us in the room, no matter what weight we were. He manhandled everybody, and made us all tougher … I probably wouldn't have been an Olympic champion without Bill Koll."
[Bill Koll in letter sweater]
In 1965, Bill Koll accepted the head coaching job at Penn State, taking the reins from Charlie Speidel, who had coached the Nittany Lions since 1927. During his fourteen seasons, Bill compiled a 127-22-7 record for a .852 winning percentage -- highest in Penn State history. His teams had five seasons without a dual-meet loss, and racked up a 41-match unbeaten streak at PSU's Rec Hall from 1969 through 1976. What's more, Bill led the Nittany Lions to six Top Ten NCAA finishes, with 20 All-Americans and three individual NCAA champions.
"I think about how hard my dad had to work," says Rob Koll. "He was a full-time professor of Health and PE, and the head coach of the wrestling program, with just one assistant."
Bill Koll retired from coaching at the end of the 1978 season. In addition to being inducted into both the Iowa and Pennsylvania Wrestling Halls of Fame, Bill Koll is a distinguished member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and the Glen Brand Hall of Fame at the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute & Museum in Waterloo, Iowa.
In September 2003, Bill Koll passed away from a stroke at age 80. However, his legacy lives on. In 2007, thanks to the gift of an anonymous donor, the Outstanding Wrestler award at the NCAA Division I tournament was named in Bill Koll's honor … with Derek Moore, 141-pound champ from UC-Davis being first to win the newly-named Koll Award. And, of course, Bill Koll's legacy continues with the lives he touched as a wrestler, coach, and father.